For many in North America, it was believed the World Cup of Hockey would be their chance to catch another glimpse of Ilya Kovalchuk, but the veteran sniper was left off the Russian roster after an ugly end to his campaign in the KHL.
But if the pre-season tournament in 2016 didn’t allow fans to see Kovalchuk, the start of the next campaign might offer another chance for the Russian winger to be back in the spotlight of the NHL.
In a lengthy interview with the KHL’s official website, Kovalchuk, 33, said that a return to the NHL could be possible following this season. He stopped short of saying that he’s pursuing a return to North America, though, and didn’t tip his hand as to his plans once his deal with SKA St. Petersburg comes to a close at the end of the 2016-17 season.
“We will see. Anything can happen,” Kovalchuk said about his future plans and a possible NHL comeback. “Why not? We will consider all options for continuing a career. Now I have a contract that I have to not just work, but with (my) head held high.”
Over the past few seasons, talk of Kovalchuk’s potential NHL return has circled, but the interest has seemingly been waning thanks to his play in the KHL. In his first three campaigns, he was a steady scorer but nowhere near the dominant force many would have expected, and his best performance was a 25-goal, 55-point season in 54 games in 2014-15. However, this season has shown that Kovalchuk still possesses some of that lethal scoring ability.
In 28 games, Kovalchuk already has 16 goals and 36 points on a high-powered SKA club, and he’s only two off the league’s scoring lead.
That said, things are always a little more difficult when it comes to Kovalchuk. This, of course, is thanks in no small part to the faux-retirement he underwent in order to leave the NHL and sign a KHL deal just three seasons into his 15-year contract with the New Jersey Devils.
Kovalchuk would need to receive approval from the league’s 31 teams in order to suit up in the NHL next season, and that includes the Devils, whom he spurned by leaving so abruptly. That could be the one hiccup in his attempt to come back to the NHL, as the Devils might not want another team to be able to benefit from Kovalchuk’s services when his original contract would have kept him in New Jersey until 2024-25.
Kovalchuk can, however, avoid that headache altogether, but it means his next contract won’t be in the NHL. If he wants to come back as an unrestricted free agent, with no permission necessary, he can do so as of April 2018. That means a one-year deal in the KHL could be the best way to completely control his fate when he returns.
There was also a third way for Kovalchuk to return, which would have seen him sit out an entire campaign in order to then become a free agent. But with him playing in SKA this season, it makes no sense to sit out the 2017-18 campaign when he’d become a free agent ahead of 2018-19 regardless of where he plays.
All this is to say that no one, except for maybe Kovalchuk and his agent, really knows what the future holds. The teases of an NHL return have gone on for the past few seasons, and one would have guessed his being stripped of SKA’s captaincy — during the playoffs, no less — would have been the final straw. It wasn’t, though, and he’s still in St. Petersburg.
At this point, his return to the NHL might need to be seen to be believed, but like Kovalchuk said, “anything can happen.”
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